Alex Hall let out a shriek when his last trick landed on the downhill track, and that was before the umpires gave him the winning score. He later said it was the best trip of his life.
“Oh,” he said, “you’ve been stoked.” “I couldn’t believe I just landed.”
Hall was one of three Americans looking to rally for the medal podium at the men’s freestyle downhill ski event, hoping the Europe-centric field wouldn’t derail those plans.
Two of them did: Hall won the gold and Nick Goepper won the silver on another sunny day below zero at Genting Snow Park. Sweden’s Jesper Tjader won the bronze.
In a competition in which only a skater’s best score was counted, Hall set the benchmark early on with a score of 90.01 in the first three runs. Everyone else spent a cold morning trying to fit in, but no one did. Goepper was the closest, in his second round, scoring 86.48 points.
“Okay,” he said when the result came out. “I consider.”
Both Americans arrived in the final with high hopes and an exciting story. Goepper, 27, has been looking to complete a whole rainbow of medals, having won a bronze in 2014 and a silver in 2018. He’s struggled with alcohol abuse and depression, and has opened up about his struggles after his 2018 performance in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
In an interview last month, Goepper said he’s happy about it Other athletes seem increasingly willing to discuss their mental health.
Colby Stephenson, 24, had a near-fatal car accident in 2016, late at night on a country road in Idaho. He spent days in a coma, but recovered to return to the world circuit and win the major events. At these Olympics, he won a silver medal in the big air and was a contender for another medal in the downhill.
Instead, he finished seventh, unable to land cleanly in the race he imagined.
“I gave him everything I had,” he said after his last chance.
Today it belongs to the hall. The 23-year-old was born in Alaska but grew up mostly in Switzerland, the son of professors at the University of Zurich. He had no training until he was 16, when he was invited by the US Friske Team to coach in Utah. For a while, he thought about competing for Italy, where his mother belonged.
That background, freed from the shackles of training and youth competitions, nourished him with some free spirit.
He was 16th in the waterslide at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, just as his career was taking off. He won the World Cup that year and the X Games in 2019. He was third in the World Championships last year.
It’s tall, over six feet, but it stands out on the slopes mostly because of its originality.
“You’ll see him do a whole bunch of taps, nose butter, and creative ways to take advantage of the course,” American freestyle ski coach Dave Euler said of Hall in December. “He’s a very creative cycle user.”
The Olympic competition was the final show for the downhill track, a notable – but temporary – venue made of snow designed to look like part of the nearby Great Wall of China. The combination of rails, obstacles, and jumps created a plethora of possibilities, but it has upset some of the best snowboarders and snowboarders in the world. Hall and Goepper loved it.
“Once you standardize the sport, you’re going to kill it,” Guber said. “So if you can leave the creativity and art to us, it will keep this sport fresh.”
This is why Hall was considered Olympic champions. He’s won big competitions through incredible courses, and it’s a non-stop trend of winning in both freestyle skiing and snowboarding that worries purists.
But on Wednesday, Hall brought in a bag of technical tricks, hoping the judges would reward him for originality rather than rotation.
His last jump was the one he’s landed only twice before, although it’s only a 900-degree spin – half of what many other tricks are these days. As Hall described it, he made a one-way spin in the air, stopping and spinning the other way before landing.
This led to a hoot.
“I’ve always said to myself, ‘If I don’t enjoy doing it, I don’t really need to do it,'” said Hall. “So I may do whatever brings me all that joy.”
His smile was masked by a mask, the hallmark of the Olympic Games held during the pandemic. But his eyes lit up under his frozen eyebrows. He wore an American flag over his shoulders, and soon he wore a gold medal around his neck.